How to Fix The Work Imbalance at Home
Harvard Law grad Eve Rodsky has noticed something we’re sure you’ve seen, too. When it comes to the domestic workload, there’s rarely an even split among partners — which leads to resentment and, in her case, crying on the side of the road over a text about blueberries. But in her new book, Fair Play, Eve is here to help. She worked with 500 men and women, including same sex couples and people in different financial situations, to come up with an easy system for a path forward. Here’s what she told us.
Katie Couric: Fair Play is essentially a manual to help rebalance the domestic workload between partners. Before we even get into that, can you tell us how you came up with the idea for the book in the first place?
Eve Rodsky: I like to say that this is a book I was born to write, because I started thinking about these issues when I was really young. I grew up in a single mom household in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and from an early age, I had a first-hand look at what it looks like for one person to hold all the cards and do all the work in the home. We had lots of late utility bills and eviction notices coming under our door. I vowed from a young age that wouldn’t be me, that I would have an equal partner in life.
And I did — I married that equal partner. We were killing it at business and life, and things felt really fair. Cut to two kids later, when I find myself literally sobbing on the side of the road. I pulled over after a text my husband sent me: “I’m surprised you didn’t get blueberries.” You can picture the scene: I have a breast pump in my passenger seat, gifts to return for a newborn baby I just had, and I have a client contract in my lap, with pen that’s going through my legs as I’m trying to mark up the contract at red traffic lights.
In that moment, I felt so overwhelmed and thought to myself, “Well obviously I can’t even manage a grocery list anymore, when I used to be able to manage a team of employees.” But more importantly: “How did I become the default?” Or as I put it in the book, “the she-fault.” I decided that something had to change. So I went on a quest for solution for domestic rebalance.
Through all your research, what were your findings about the current status of domestic balance in relationships in the U.S.? Who carries the most weight and why?
Well, there’s my findings from my 500 interviews and there’s also scientific findings — and I’ll start with that. Scientific journal studies find that in many relationships, women still do ⅔ of what it takes to run a home and family, regardless of whether they work outside the home. That’s the science. What I was finding was that as well. I was finding women who were climbing up the resent-o-meter, and the biggest problems in partnerships were the smallest details.
I’m sobbing over off-season blueberries. I had a man in White Plains, New York, tell me he was locked out of his house over a glue stick he forgot to bring home for his kid’s project. His wife later told me that she had been working three weeks on a giant homework project for her kid, and all she needed to finish it was a glue stick to glue pictures onto a poster board, and he couldn’t even do that. I had a COO of a publicly-traded company tell me that her greatest challenge in life is getting her husband to remember to take out the kitty litter — not running her publicly-traded company! So, what is that? What I realized was that all this fighting over glue sticks and blueberries is really over perceived unfairness. And when you can right that balance of unfairness, then things can change.
How did your background at Harvard Law and in organizational management help you tackle this issue?
This started as what I call my “Sh** I Do” spreadsheets. From my academic background, I’m a really good researcher. So I read every book and article I could find on the gender division of labor, the second shift, emotional labor, and invisible work. That last one, invisible work, came out of an article from 1987, a sociologist named Arlene Kaplan Daniels. That really resonated with me because I kept thinking to myself, “Maybe my husband does not value all that I do because you cannot value what you cannot see.”
I decided to write down everything I did for my family that took more than two minutes. While I couldn’t quantify loving my kids, I could quantify the 30 minutes it took me to buy flowers for my son’s recitals. That’s how it started. The culmination of this 17,000 megabytes spreadsheet was sending it to my husband, Seth, with a huge subject line with “Can’t wait to discuss!” with all those balloon-popping emojis. I didn’t even get a courtesy of three monkeys back — I just got that lonely monkey that’s covering his eyes. In that moment I realized that lists alone don’t work. But systems do.
For my day job, I’m a mediator, I’m a lawyer, and I work with highly-complex families that look like the HBO show “Succession.” I help them bring dysfunction to family harmony through systems, through communication tools. My “aha” moment was that I could be resigned to doing this my entire life or I could get off my ass and get to work, and start using the learnings from my 10 years as a mediator and start applying it to my home. This became a system that I beta tested over three years with myself and my couples, and it’s working. It’s really working.
Your book focuses on the solutions, rather than the problems. So, without spoiling too much of the book, what are some of the systems you propose?
Everything you can learn in Fair Play really starts with mustard. What I mean by that is, you know that your son Johnny likes French’s Yellow Mustard on his hot dog because you see it and make note of that. That’s what I call “Conception.” Then, somebody had to actually write French’s Yellow Mustard on a grocery list, so you can pick it up and get more when it’s running low. That’s what I call “Planning.” Then, you actually have to get your ass to the store and go get the mustard. That’s what I call “execution.” That’s when [a partner] typically steps in, and that’s a problem. What I saw around the country was that [partners] were being asked to step in at the execution level. And so guess what happened? They were bringing home Spicy Dijon instead of French’s mustard.
That’s what happens when you break up the Conception, Planning, and Execution. So the big solution is you keep the full CPE, as I call it, together. You do that when you own a full task. Fair Play gives so many tools on how to do that. It can start really small, because my biggest finding — and what I want to scream from the rooftops everywhere — is that 50/50 is the wrong equation for the home. The right equation is ownership.
When my husband took over extracurricular sports for my kids, he used to think it was just showing up at the little league field. But we sat down and discussed that it involves registering our kids, finding out what teams they want to be on, planning what gear they need, putting practices and carpooling in their schedules so they can get to and from their practices. Once that was over, everything started changing in our house. And that’s what I’m seeing with the beta testers too.
I just got an amazing text from a man who is a CEO of a big company and he texted himself with the book at the grocery store, because he took over the grocery card with full CPE. Now he understands the time it takes for invisible work. We started talking about does it mean you need to give your employees more time for invisible work? Do you start treating maternity and paternity leave the same? When you start taking agency of your own life, it starts affecting the world around you.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length.
This originally appeared in the October 3, 2019 edition of Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter. Subscribe here.